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Big Biz on Campus

Go back to school with a business serving the college crowd.

Ray Sozzi, founder of Boston-based Student Advantage Inc., was thinking business even during his own college career at Dartmouth College, where he started an on-campus newspaper distribution service. The business was good practice-Sozzi learned how to serve students at the Hanover, New Hampshire, school and give them what they needed.

In 1992, Sozzi put that knowledge into practice with Student Advantage. What started as a student discount program has become one of the largest student membership organizations serving the college market. Its network of services includes a discount program, a college sports community (Fansonly.com) and an online scholarship research service, to name a few.

Sozzi, 33, is just one of many savvy business owners tapping into a market that's expected to explode to 15.5 million students by 2005. Evidently, there's big business in serving not only current college students, but prospective ones as well. "The college space has always been hot," says Sozzi. And since college students are one of the most wired demographics-nearly every dorm room has Internet access-college students are considered "the consumers of the future."

Based in Boston, Student Advantage boasts relationships with nearly 5 million college students and projects 2001 revenues of nearly $70 million. While the sheer size of the market can be inviting, experts warn that prospective entrepreneurs need to do serious homework in order to be viable in this community. "You can't just jump into the college marketplace. It needs to be a well-thought-out and well-tested program that will make a really strong first impression," says Kevin Colleran, a 20-year-old student at Babson College, veteran entrepreneur and CNN expert on college issues.

Colleran advocates getting to know your market intimately by hiring college representatives. This will help you determine exactly what students-who are bombarded by marketing messages daily-really want. "Get them with something they have a need for or something they think is cool or hip," he advises. And remember, college students are used to getting discounts-if you can give them a good value or give them something for free, you'll be ahead of the game.

Frances Huffman, a former editor of a national college magazine, agrees. "College students are really price-conscious," she says. "They're not necessarily looking for the best service-they'll look for the cheapest." And in planning your business, make sure you find a product or service the students absolutely need. "You've got to find your niche," adds Huffman.

Keep in mind that your niche could be college students or pre-college students, as it is with College Coach LLC, a college admissions preparation service in Newton, Massachusetts. Founded in 1998 by Michael London and Stephen Kramer, both 30, College Coach helps high school students and their parents navigate the stressful waters of applying to college.

"We researched various business possibilities and recalled how complex and stressful the college admissions process was for us," says London. "Our research showed that high school students and their parents needed support in this area." Helping students create a package that's attractive to colleges while alleviating some of the stress is what College Coach does best. And with 81 percent of their clients getting into their first-choice schools and 2000 sales of approximately $1 million, it seems the word is out.

Whether you decide to sell books or lava lamps, do laundry or type papers, there's a market for your college-themed service. Aspiring entrepreneurs need only do the homework to find it.

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